A Time to Cull

John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

A sure sign that fall is upon us is that corn and soybean fields are maturing and the fall harvest season is underway for most farmers. Early reports from around Ohio are that yields are very good, especially for corn. It is also harvest season for the cow-calf producer as spring-born calves are being weaned now and over the next few weeks.

As calves are weaned, much attention will be given to the general welfare of the calf and rightfully so. Hopefully health programs were in place to avoid sickness in newly weaned calves and marketing plans will help capture full value for your calves. Fall is a great time to reap the rewards of all of your hard work and to evaluate the quality of your calf crop.

Weaning time is also an excellent time to evaluate your cow herd and decide which cows get to remain your “employees” and which ones need to find a new career. Notice that I referred to the cow as an employee. After all, they work for you. Yes, you have to provide them with the infrastructure to do their job including proper nutrition, health care, facilities, etc. However, if they are not being productive for you, they need to be replaced.

Cows and heifers leave operations for a variety of reasons. The U.S.D.A.’s 2007-08 National Animal Health Monitoring System’s (NAHMS) Beef Study surveyed producers and determined the primary reasons for culling breeding females from the herd. Across all sizes of operations, the top reasons given for culling females from the herd were as follows: 1. Age or bad teeth; 55.7%; 2. Pregnancy status (open or aborted): 41.8%; 3. Temperament: 16.6%; 4. Other reproductive problem: 13.4%; 5. Economics (drought, herd reduction, market conditions): 10.9%; 6. Producing poor calves: 10.7%; 7. Physical unsoundness: 9.6%; 8. Udder problem: 9.2%; and 8. Bad eyes; 7.1%.

In general, as herd size increased, operations became tougher in regards to enforcing the reasons for culling. This can be interpreted as the larger herds that are probably more full-time in nature and less willing to tolerate issues that compromise efficiency within the operation. The most notable case of this was under the “Pregnancy status (open or aborted)” category. However, herds that were smaller in size were quicker to cull under the “Economics (drought, herd reduction, market conditions)” category than the larger herds. I believe that this can be interpreted that the smaller herds are generally a smaller enterprise in a larger farming operation or a supplemental enterprise for a part-time producer and in those situations; producers are less likely to tolerate large negative economic impacts.

I believe that all of the top reasons for culling from the NAHMS study are very valid. How these reasons are ranked will vary from operation to operation due to a variety of circumstances. It is my opinion that for nearly every operation, the top reason for culling should be pregnancy status. An open cow is accumulating expenses and not generating income to pay the bills. According to the 2013 OSU Enterprise Budgets, the variable costs (feed, health, marketing, supplies, interest, etc.) for a spring calving cow-calf pair are $553.31. This doesn’t include fixed costs such as labor, land, animal replacement, building, etc. Going much longer than a year between paychecks can be nothing but a losing proposition. Palpating or blood testing to determine pregnancy status should be a routine management practice after the breeding season to help minimize losses resulting from open females.

The other reasons for culling are significant as well. Age or bad teeth usually result in poorer body condition and ultimately open cows or other reproductive problems. The older I become, I certainly have less desire and physical ability to deal with cows with disposition problems. The more acreage that your herd has to cover, you will become more critical of structural soundness issues. There is never a good time to deal with udder problems. Obviously, economic factors are an issue for everyone.

I also have a confession to make in regards to this topic. Truth be told, I have not always followed my own advice. It can tell you that it can be very tough to enforce the reasons for culling when a former junior fair project or a personal “favorite” cow is involved. I admit that I haven’t always followed my own advice that “You can love your wife, you can love your kids, just don’t love your cows!!!” History has taught me that when you make exceptions, it seldom works out for the best.

The fall is a great time to evaluate your cow herd to determine who your productive “employees” are and which ones are not. Just be honest and objective in your evaluation and your bottom line will improve.